A man is shown wearing a tinfoil hat


When Conspiracy Theorists Are In Your Family, Around Your Kids, What Do You Do?

May 10, 2021

In October of 1962, the world appeared to be on the brink of annihilation.

Nuclear war between world superpowers seemed imminent, and this is something my father remembers all too well.

He remembers the duck and cover drills. He remembers  “make your own bomb shelter” schematics popping up in his comics. He remembers when the world really did appear to be ending.

So I understand that he likes to be careful.

But careful becomes something else with the introduction of "they."

“They” are all over the place. He knows all about "them." 

And “they” appears to be Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates collecting information on everyone, combined with an NSA super plot to scan every word of every email from a dissenter ever published.

Craig Stephens is trying to help his daughter sift through a deluge of conspiracy theories, but it isn't easy.

"They" have planes. "They" have an army of hackers and "they" know who you are and what you are doing. Right now.

This is the hard part, and why so many of my explanations fall flat: I don't think he's all that far off base — he's just missing the final piece of the puzzle.

“Dad, they aren't hunting you, they just want to sell you stuff."

Sometimes it can be hard to listen to.

Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater

He once drowned a $2,000 Macbook in the bathtub because Adobe was automatically updating and he thought it was a hacker.

I wish you could have seen the look on his face when I told him that in many cases you can dry out a laptop and it will still function. It was priceless. But it also conjured more fear — his thoughts swirled, and he began to worry about how the garbage man may be in possession of everything on his computer, including access to his life savings.

I know it's a bit extreme, but I put all of this aside because we love Grandpa.

No matter how unusual someone's perception of the world is, I don't think it should take away from your relationship with that person. When we are laughing and drinking and playing bridge, that is who my father is to me. Not the laptop murderer.

He can easily go too far

Harmless postulation is one thing, but when the ideas turn racist, sexist or homophobic, I believe it becomes morally objectionable to do nothing. So, I will usually deal with these situations harshly, with direct and clear refutation — and absolutely no give.

Because my daughter doesn't need to hear that kind of garbage from him, nor does anyone else. 

I'm lucky, though — these occurrences are rare, and most of our time together is wonderful. You hear a lot about family gatherings turning into verbal sparring matches because the politics at the dinner table don't align. That's not really our dynamic.

We don't always agree, and my dad says some really objectionable things, but I often feel my happiest when I see my father and daughter together — because it reconnects me to the joys of my past, free of any of the divisions that may have been laid since.

They will tire themselves out

I bet that most families have a stubborn, aging relative who won't budge.

This is precisely why I have made peace with the fact that I am never going to win certain arguments.

In fact, I know my parents are never going to put their ideas away and say: “Wow, you know what? You were right!”

All I can do is give them the resources they need to reach a proper conclusion, and just hope they get there. If one of us gets so worked up that we become offensive, no one wins, especially if children are within earshot.

"No matter how unusual someone's perception of the world is, I don't think it should take away from your relationship with that person."

I find that quibbling and sparring gets us nowhere. What's more important to me is getting to the root of the issue. When we speak, I let them get whatever it is out of their system. I don't have to say much, I just listen.

This strategy serves many purposes.

First, it builds trust, because I am an eager, receptive ear. It also keeps lines of communication open, which allows me to get to the foundation of their ideas. Sometimes during a passionate sermon they will even trip over their own words and start to question themselves. Often, once they are done, they become embarrassed and won't want to talk about the subject for some time.

And all I had to do was be present for them to speak their truths.

When I come across demonstrably false information, I handle it a bit differently. But I ask for nothing more than a little research — so they can verify information for themselves. I don't ask them to do it for me ("source?"), or right away ("tick, tock, Grandpa!"). I just ask that one day they will prove it — to themselves. I find this has a much more lasting impact than haranguing them over tea.

We're adults, but we aren't perfect. I know there will be some things that children could probably go without hearing, and we do our best to keep these conversations for an adult audience. But kids, as I'm sure you're aware, hear everything.

My daughter has told me as much.

The work never stops

I have to remember this often and always and just do my best to make sure what my daughter hears isn't complete nonsense.

But that's more difficult to do than ever, since the society she is growing up in is an absolute beehive of information.

Everywhere she goes and everything she does is accompanied by information, and a lot of it. It has never been easier to share an idea, whether it is truth or fiction.

Even just thinking about hiding my daughter from misinformation is absurd, because it's seemingly impossible. Which is why my focus is on comprehension. 

My daughter has to learn how to distinguish good ideas from bad ones. It doesn't matter if those ideas come from Grandma and Grandpa, the neighbours who are building an apocalypse-proof bunker or Great Uncle Climate Change Denier. She has to be able to make these determinations for herself.

And she does.

She has demonstrated her ability to hold off judgment on new ideas until more evidence comes to light. And, really, at this stage in her development I can't ask for much more.

As she grows, she will continue in her work to think more critically. And as most adults know, that work is never really done. And it certainly does not stop and start depending on who is in the room.

This dad will do anything to keep his daughter from being glued to her phone.

Conspiracy theories have found great strength in this pandemic. It doesn't help that many of us are isolated and terrified, watching the death count rise on the evening news.

So many people will emerge from the pandemic withdrawn and confused, addicted or in mental distress. It will be up to stable, sane, moral people to pull them out of it.

I cannot wait to listen to my parents go on and on about “how this all happened” because it will mean we are together again. In the end, every one of us holds some absurd notion to be true. Myself, I believe that one day Ray Kurzweil will upload his consciousness into a robot body and live forever. (Try me!)

Strange ideas do not change the fact that my neighbours would happily shelter me from the apocalypse in their bunker. Or that my parents would die for their grandchild. What we share together is worth so much more than the trivialities we quarrel over.

To me, Dad will always be Dad first. I can deal with the rest as it comes.

Article Author Quentin Janes
Quentin Janes

Quentin Janes is a writer whose influences include Raymond Kurtzweil, Steven Pinker, Noam Chomsky, Niall Ferguson, Jeremy Rifkin and Martin Luther King Jr — among countless others. He is a putterer, a tinkerer and a fixer of broken things. From bad grades to bad dogs to toilets, kids or drywall, he says he can fix it all.